Chúc mừng năm mới or Happy New Year to all my fellow Vietnamese friends! For those of you who didn’t know, today is Vietnamese New Year or as it’s commonly called, Tết. The celebration of Tết is the most important holiday in Vietnam and festivals can last for weeks.
It’s always been a tradition in my family to celebrate Tết and I have fond memories of decorating my house with bright red lanterns. In Vietnamese culture, the colours red and yellow are associated with luck and are commonly used in decorations for the new year. So, as you can imagine, come late January/early February our house was a bright contrast to the otherwise grey winter.
But now, let’s talk about the most important part of any good holiday: the food. The name “Tết” is actually short for “Tết Nguyên Đán” which translates to “feast for the first morning of the first day”. As you might expect, it is a tradition in Vietnam to cook special holiday foods in celebration of the new year. Popular festive dishes include bánh chưng (a rice cake consisting of beans and pork) and bánh dày (a flat white rice cake that is wrapped in banana leaves). As you’re reading this, I will most likely be in my kitchen surrounded by the smells of ginger chicken, jasmine rice and spring rolls. A household favourite in my family is coconut curry chicken, which includes a creamy curry fish sauce and pieces of bamboo shoot.
As I mentioned, my family often celebrates Tết at our house. But it doesn’t just end with a simple family dinner. After adopting both my sister and me, my parents were connected with a group of families who also adopted children from Vietnam. They were called “The Good Fortune Group” and helped children and parents stay connected to Vietnamese culture while living in Canada. After meeting some friends at the group’s gathering, my parents extended an invitation to them and they continue to help us celebrate the holiday. I will forever cherish the friendships I made and the connection we all share with our culture. Funnily enough, I still talk to some of these friends, one of them even attends Western.
Part of the traditions at our new year celebration is wearing traditional Vietnamese dresses called áo dàis. These dresses feature a colourful silk tunic and are worn with white pants underneath. Granted, these dresses usually got dirty within seconds when we were kids.
As fun as it is on the day, planning for our yearly celebration doesn’t just happen overnight. Since Tết is such a major holiday, it is common in Vietnam for preparations to last weeks. My family and I aren’t quite that intense but we definitely have our many checklists to complete. This leads me to another fond memory: our trip to the Asian food market. Even as an adult, I look forward to our yearly Tết-related shopping trip.
One of the first items we pick out are the much-anticipated lucky money envelopes. It’s a tradition in Vietnamese culture for parents and grandparents to gift bright red envelopes to their children/grandchildren for the holiday. These envelopes are often filled with money and symbolize luck for the new year ahead. I always looked forward to receiving these envelopes as a child and as I got older, helped my mom prepare the envelopes for the kids at our gatherings. For the younger ones, my mom often filled the envelopes with chocolate coins to make it more fun. I mean, what can a 4 year-old really do with money anyway?
Envelopes aside, there is still more to check off our list at the Asian food market. Despite my excitement for gifts, the main event of this shopping trip for me is the desserts. I love raiding the treats aisle to pick out the various sweets for our celebration. A couple classics for us are Pocky sticks, candied coconut and, most importantly, Jell-O cups.
Often around Tết, the Asian grocery store has some animal-shaped containers filled with little fruit flavoured Jell-O cups. Each year, my family and I have fun picking out which container we want. This year, we’ve selected a panda that both simultaneously looks like it’s smiling at you while also staring into your soul.
If you thought my family’s emphasis on these Jell-O cups was crazy, they are nothing compared to my elementary school classmates. When I was younger, I used to bring these Jell-O cups to school for my classmates to enjoy. But with these Jell-O cups came “great power, and great responsibility”. I always brought extras and my classmates would beg me for them. I was offered everyone’s best erasers and sharpest pencils. Come early February, I almost didn’t have to do any homework.
As well as trying to bribe me for Jell-O cups, my classmates would also often ask me: why is Tết in February? Well, in Vietnam, the new year is calculated using the lunar calendar. This system uses what is called a lunisolar calendar which determines its dates according to both the moon phase and the time of the solar year. The lunar calendar follows a cycle that resets on the first day of spring. This date changes depending on the year and usually falls around late January or early February. Since Tết is based on the lunar calendar, it often aligns with Chinese New Year, which also happens to be today!
Another interesting aspect of the Vietnamese calendar is their use of zodiac signs and animals. The Vietnamese zodiac features 12 different animals: rat, buffalo, tiger, cat, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. There is a 12-year cycle that involves each zodiac animal being assigned a year. 2021 is the year of the buffalo which, according to the zodiac, represents a year of steady progress and patient strength. Given the crazy year we’ve had, I think we could all use some more patience and progress.
Similar to astrological zodiac signs, the Vietnamese zodiac year that you are born in is said to reflect your various personality traits. For my fellow 2000 babies out there, we were born in the year of the Dragon (which, in my biased opinion, is the best one because we are the luckiest). If you want to learn what zodiac animal aligns with your birth year, VietVison Travel provides a chart to show which years correspond with which zodiac as well as a description of each animal.
As I mentioned before, Tết is seen as the largest holiday celebrated in Vietnam. I had the pleasure of seeing the festivities for myself when my family and I travelled to Vietnam in 2008. Although I was only seven, I recall seeing colourful lanterns hung everywhere I went. I also distinctly remember this breathtaking flower display that was arranged to look like a giant dragon. This year, Vietnam is still finding ways to safely celebrate amongst quarantine. This includes a fireworks show in Hanoi and various other online events and performances.
For those of us here in London, there are still many ways that you can celebrate the holiday locally. In fact, the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) at Western hosted an online event to celebrate the new year earlier this week. But don’t worry, there are still various virtual new year celebrations left for you to tune into. For example, The Vietnamese Association of Toronto is hosting an online Tết festival on February 14th and more information can be found on their Facebook page.
No matter how you choose to celebrate, I hope you have a fun and festive evening! Whether that’s simply giving a lucky money envelope to a loved one or having a full-on feast with your family, I wish everyone chúc mừng năm mới.
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